Published by Counter-Culture April, 2020 (www.countercultureuk.com)
Although Karl Marx and his key collaborator Frederic Engels were politically engaged, active participants in the class struggle
as well as being the theoretical founders of Scientific Socialism, neither of them had much to say about what a future Communist Society might look like. It is not true to say, however, as some critics claim, that they gave no indication of how society and
the state might function in the immediate aftermath of the overthrow of capitalism. In his book The Civil War in France, Marx made it clear that he saw the form of Direct Democracy exercised by the Communards in the short-lived but heroic Paris Commune, as
an indication of how the working class might exercise State Power in a socialist society, a society that he saw as the transitional stage between Capitalism and Communism. The ideas Marx expressed here were later developed by Lenin in his pamphlet ‘The
State and Revolution’ as a model for the future Soviet State, although in reality, for reasons that need not detain us here, very few of them were actually put into operation once this state was established.
That neither Marx nor Engels were willing
to speculate on how Full Communism might look, once the concentration of power in the hands of the Proletariat under socialism had been long enough established for the state to, in his own terms, ‘wither away’, was more than anything else an indication
of how far away such a prospect seemed at the time that they were writing. One thing that they were clear on however was that Communism, a society where class rule, and hence the repressive apparatus of the state had ceased to exist completely, could only
arise in a situation where the application of scientific theory and praxis had created an ‘abundance of goods’ that were accessible to all, rather than to a small pampered elite that lived off the wealth creation of others. Once established, such
a society would free individuals from the necessity of dedicating the bulk of their lives to maintaining the barest of existences through their work, thus enabling them to take part fully in the running of that society, as well as being able to dedicate themselves
to such noble pursuits as Art, Philosophy and Science. An example of how such a society might function was perhaps given, in somewhat primitive form, by the Ancient Greek City-states, where those who were fortunate enough to enjoy full citizenship were freed
from the prosaic needs of survival by the existence of large numbers of much less fortunate slaves, thus enabling a flowering of creativity and thought that remains influential to this day. Marx and Engels were of course not agitating for a return to slavery,
and indeed strongly supported the abolitionist North against the Slave owning South in the American Civil War. Rather, they saw in the rapidly advancing technological marvels of the Industrial Revolution, the outlines of a future world where mechanisation
would allow full citizenship for all, and through that development in the finer elements of human endeavour that would make the achievements of the Ancients, and of the Enlightenment, seem like a mere prehistoric prelude to history. Under Full Communism, every
man would be a Renaissance Man.
Marx and Engels resided for a long period in Victorian Britain, which was then the citadel of world capitalism, as well as the birthplace of the industrial revolution; and it was a through a study of this society that
much of what we have come to know as ‘Marxism’ was developed. Here, even in the most developed nation on Earth, they found conditions of extreme poverty afflicting the developing working class, as described most graphically in Engels ‘The
Conditions of the Working Class in England.’ Given such appalling conditions, speculation about how a future communist society might look once all such poverty had been eliminated, along with the system of class exploitation itself, would have seemed
just that: wild speculation best left to utopians and dreamers, and best avoided by those who based their analysis on the application of the scientific method to the study of politics. Of course, It was also axiomatic to the founders of Scientific Socialism
that a society of abundance could only be built from the starting point of the highest forms of capitalism. That is why, the clear expectation of both Marx and Engels was that the first socialist society would be established in one of the most developed capitalist
nations, most likely in Britain or Germany. The reality, of course, is that the first state in the world that proclaimed itself to be a Socialist State in the process of advancing towards Communism arose in backward, semi-feudal Russia, a fact that has had
a great bearing on the development of socialist thought both East and West.
Those who have called themselves ‘Socialists’ or ‘Communists’ in the West since the Russian Revolution of 1917, have tended to place themselves at either
one of two extremes: Firstly, those who follow Marx in insisting that the society of the future is almost unimaginable to our puny, capitalist indoctrinated brains, and therefore such speculation is best avoided; and, secondly, those who say that such a society
is already in the process of being created, in the Soviet Union, China, Albania, Cuba, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea et al. Both of these approaches have their weaknesses. The former has led to many activists seeming to do little more than ask
people to continue to fight the good fight and to have trust in a brighter future, in the way that religious zealots might demand faith in a future paradise that can bring about through good works and/or devout faith. The latter group is all too easily, rightly
or wrongly, portrayed by the defenders of the status quo as apologists for Totalitarian Dictatorship and mass murder.
It is to these historical weaknesses in the case for Socialism/Communism that Aaron Bastani’s book Fully Automated Luxury Communism
His essential thesis is that a future of material abundance is now far from unimaginable. The technological advances made since Marx’ time, and particularly in the period since the Second World War, have been literally astonishing,
calling to mind the dictum that ‘if technology is sufficiently advanced it becomes indistinguishable from magic’. Marx was around at the time of the invention of the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell: what would he have made of our modern mobile
phones, devices through which we hold in our hands virtually the sum total of all human knowledge? The primary mode of transport in Victorian London at the time of Marx’ period of residence in our capital city was the horse-drawn carriage, and the world’s
first Railway network was still in the process of being created through the brute labour-power of overworked and underpaid itinerant Navies, the ‘precariat’ of their day. Today, the motor car is king, human beings have walked on the Moon and have
developed the ability to send crafts, albeit unmanned, well beyond the confines of our own Galaxy.
And yet, as Bastani shows in clear, easy to read, accessible prose, our astonishing technological advance has been and still is used in the service of
a tiny elite, rather than utilised for the benefit of the many; and to make this state of affairs even worse, the ceaseless pursuit of private profit by a few techno-corporate giants threatens, even sans nuclear warfare, to destroy our planet, our habitat,
our home, the environment upon which our very survival as a species depends.
Bastani is able to show that a society of post-scarcity is both possible and necessary, as well as to give an indication of how such a society might be achieved and might look.
Those of us who are actively engaged in the struggle for a radically different, fairer world, whether we call ourselves Communists, Socialists, Anarchists or Ecologists, be we Trade Unionists and/or campaigners for peace and climate justice, need to absorb,
to treat with seriousness, and to make use of the kind of analysis and agenda that Bastani and his co-thinkers are currently advancing. If we don’t, if we ignore such developments and merely implore activists to stick to a study of the classics of Marx,
Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, Enver Hoxa, Kim Il Sung, mix and match as you see fit, and if we continue to re-fight the battles of the past rather than becoming proselytisers for an incomparably brighter and entirely realistic future, then we will confine
ourselves to perpetual life on the political margins. The revolution will remain, as one wag put it, ‘just around the corner, the same place it has always been.’
Sadly, too many on the political Left have decided to dismiss Bastani’s
work as worthless ‘hipster communism’, often it seems to me without having even bothered to read the book, let alone to engage seriously with the ideas put forward within its pages.
Here, in defending Bastani from his ‘Leftist’
critics, I will confine myself to two main points.
The first of these is the contention that FALC is essentially a ‘Reformist’ project. This is a point that is easily dealt with. Of course, the ideas in the book are indeed reformist, reformist
in the sense that it contains a set of proposals to be implemented by a future radical government. That is, it is reformist in the same way that Labour’s 2017 and 2019 Election Manifestoes were reformist, in the same way that the 1945 Labour government
was reformist. Reforms are important. Reforms, before Thatcher and Blair between them, made the word ‘reform’ mean the opposite of its former political definition, have given working people much. But the reforms contained in Bastani’s book,
if implemented in full, would amount to a revolution in the way we live more radical than anything ever previously seen.
In one badly argued ‘Left’ critique of FALC, from John Sweeney of the Communist Party of Britain (Morning Star, July
1st, 2019), Bastani’s assertion that the revolution won’t come about through a storming of the Winter Palace was written off disparagingly: why? Leaving aside the point that there was a lot more to the Russian Revolution than the storming of the
official residence of the Tsar by an armed detachment of the working class led by the Bolshevik Party, how many on the Left in Britain today seriously believe that the British revolution will come about through a storming of Buckingham Palace? Does Sweeney
himself believe this? If he does, then that is indicative of a very narrow understanding of the form and meaning of the socialist revolution.
One of the most exciting ideas that Bastani advocates is that of using technological development in order to
advance towards a society of ever-increasing free Universal Basic Services, or UBS, a method he prefers to that of Universal Basic Income, UBI, (UBS rather than UBI), the latter which he rejects as little more than a trick to further enhance the capitalistic
notion of ‘personal responsibility’ at the expense of the socialist imperative of collective security, as well as a way of further shrinking what remains of our actually existing Welfare State. Even at the present level of technological development,
Bastani argues, it would be possible, once the capitalist class has been dispossessed, to rapidly advance to a system of UBS in the provision of energy, of high-speed broadband and other means of communication, in transport, in housing as well as in education
and health care.
As well as UBS, Bastani advocates worker’s ownership of the means of production, to be administered in differing and varied forms (e.g. state ownership, municipal ownership, cooperatives), and the virtual abolition of all intellectual
copyright and patent laws, so that the fruits of the sum total of human knowledge truly become the property of all.
Contrary to the impression given by Sweeney and many other ‘Left’ critics, Bastani doesn’t shy away from the need for
political struggle if such a radical overhaul of society is to come about. The Red-Green Populist mass movement he calls for might not in and of itself be sufficient to bring about the changes he advocates. But is it really any less realistic than the idea
of a shrinking industrial working class being led to power by a ‘vanguard’ party of the type Lenin first advocated in his ‘What is to be Done’ pamphlet way back in 1903?
This leads me to my second main point: the idea that Bastani
is a Techno-Determinist who believes that Full Communism will emerge naturally through technological advance, without the need for political struggle at all. In reality, this is a weak caricature of Bastani’s thought, about as accurate as the common
misconception that Marxism is an ideology of Economic Determinism which believes that socialism and communism are inevitable, whatever we as human beings do or don’t do.
In fact, the main thread that runs throughout the pages of Fully Automated
Luxury Communism is that the potential for modern technology to liberate the whole of humankind from the evils of drudgery, poverty, and alienation, as well as to reverse climate change through ending our dependence on the rapidly diminishing supply of oil,
is severely and quite deliberately limited by the physical and intellectual ownership of this technology by a tiny corporate, globalist elite. In short, Bastani’s work is wholly compatible with the Marxian analysis that under capitalism the capacity
of the Forces of Production to liberate mankind will always, so long as capitalism exists, be limited by the Relations of Production, the ownership of the means of production by a tiny elite who then use that ownership to enrich themselves rather than to benefit
A single quotation from the closing pages of the book should forever refute the idea that Bastani believes that political struggle is unnecessary in order to bring about revolutionary change:
‘There is no necessary reason why
they (scientists and corporations currently leading technological advance – T.G) should liberate us, or maintain our planet’s ecosystems, any more than that they should lead to ever-widening income inequality and widespread collapse. The direction
we take next won’t be the result of a predictive algorithm or unicorn start-up – it will be the result of politics, the binding decisions on all of us that we collectively choose to make.’
I am by no means a Bastani fan-boy. I have
my own criticisms of his book. I’m not keen on the use of the word ‘Luxury’ for a start, a word that to me conjures up images of indolent decadence rather than of the unleashing of the creative potential of the masses that I believe would
arise in a society built on abundance for all. There is also a strong case for dispensing with the word ‘communism’, a word that has, again rightly or wrongly to have much more negative connotations than its original Marxian meaning. And I agree
that Bastani doesn’t say enough about the form that the sort of movement he believes needs to be developed should take: for instance, a new political party, work through the existing parties, a Gramscian long march through the institutions, mass street
protest, Trade Union action, or all of the above? Would such a movement, and/or a government committed to implementing Bastani’s ideas be prepared to use violence in order to defeat resistance that would inevitably be mounted by a threatened ruling elite?
I would also add ‘Democratic’ and ‘National’ to Bastani’s ‘Red-Green-Populist triptych. ‘Democratic’ because, contrary to the sectarianism that has plagued the Left since the time of Marx himself, it really would
be better if we let as many flowers bloom as possible, and ‘National’ because the political struggle is still fought primarily at the level of the Nation-State, and I believe that history has demonstrated that the Nation-State remains the largest
form of political organization possible for the operation of a truly democratic culture. In addition, I wouldn’t be as quick as Bastani to dismiss the revolutionary/reformist potential of UBI, dependent on how it is implemented and by whom. There is
no contradiction between the ideas of UBI and UBS. The two are twins, not opposites.
But at the very least FALC offers a hopeful vision of a future worth fighting for, and of how that future might look, something that, as I have already suggested, has
been sorely lacking from Socialist discourse from its inception. Admittedly, I’m no scientist; and therefore, I’m not in a position to comment on the feasibility of asteroid mining, of nano-technology, of quantum computers, to give but a few examples
of the many technological wonders of the future that Bastani believes can lead to a life of meaningful, healthy leisure for all. Nor do I know if the capacity of renewable energies can be expanded to the point that everyday energy usage can be made free for
all, whilst at the same time making a huge contribution to reversing climate change, as quickly and as easily as Bastani suggests. But I doubt that many of the True Communist critics of the book are in any better position as regards such matters than I am.
Aaron Bastani advances a vision that inspires me, and can I believe be used to inspire others, to show the disillusioned and the dispossessed that, contrary to the fatalism and pessimism that is deliberately fostered by the ideologues of capital, that another
world, a world for the many, not the few, a world that sees nature as a home in need of repair and protection rather than as a resource to be exploited, is indeed possible.
It is time to leave our self-constructed Far Left ghettoes; time to dream; time
to allow the imagination to take power.
Anthony C Green. Anthony C Green is a social care worker, novelist, Trade Unionist, and political activist living in Liverpool. His latest novel Special, based on his experiences as a social care worker, is now
Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto Hardcover – 11 Jun. 2019
Hardcover: 288 pages
Publisher: Verso Books (11 Jun. 2019)